MOSCOW (AP) — Senior Syrian officials have pleaded with Russia for financial loans and supplies of oil products, a sign that the global fallout from President Bashar Assad's crackdown on a rebellion is squeezing his regime.
While the Syrian delegation was holding talks in Moscow, a squadron of Russian warships was approaching Syria's port of Tartus, the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. The Russian Defense Ministry said that some of the ships may call at the port to replenish their supplies.
Syria's Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who led a delegation of several Cabinet ministers on a trip to Moscow, told reporters Friday that they have asked for a Russian loan to replenish Syria's hard currency reserves, which have been depleted by an international embargo on Syrian exports.
He said Damascus also wants to get diesel oil and other oil products from Russia in exchange for crude supplies.
Jamil refused to mention specific figures, but said that the deals could be finalized within weeks. There was no immediate comment from the Russian government.
Syria is believed to be burning quickly through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government was believed to have at the start of Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising that erupted in March 2011. The conflict has turned into a civil war, and rights activists estimate more than 19,000 people have been killed over the past 17 months.
The Syrian regime has blamed U.S. and European Union sanctions for the shortages that have left Syrians across the country standing in long lines to pay inflated prices for cooking gas, fuel, sugar and other staples. But in May, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus denied that the international sanctions were to blame for the shortages.
"Our sanctions purposefully do not target oil and diesel imports, because we know that the Syrian people need both for their day-to-day lives," Ambassador Robert Ford wrote on the embassy's Facebook page. Ford said the government is using fuel imports for its tanks. He was forced to leave Syria in February citing security concerns.
Russia has protected Syria from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the conflict. The Kremlin, backed by fellow veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member China, has blocked any plans that would call on Assad to step down.
Russian news agencies reported Friday that two of the three amphibious assault ships which are part of the squadron heading to Syrian waters will call at Tartus while the third will cast anchor just outside the port.
They said that each of the three ships is carrying about 120 marines backed by armored vehicles. It wasn't immediately clear whether some of the marines will stay to protect Tartus. Some Russian media said the marines were supposed to ensure a safe evacuation of Russian personnel and navy equipment from the Tartus base if necessary.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that there was no immediate plan for the ships to call at the port, but added that some of them may do that if the navy considers it necessary to replenish onboard supplies.
Elizabeth Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.